From my young patient about to have all of her limbs amputated, I learned about compassion and courage.
I walked into her room with a smile, feeling deeply relieved. Finally, the time had come for my patient to leave the hospital after six long months of pain and suffering. She’d return home with deep and vicious scars all over her body. However, much more painful was her soul wound that would last forever. She would mourn her fate. Her hands and legs would have to be amputated soon. She was only 18, the same age as my son.
I unfortunately didn’t have much compassion for my patients before I met her. I focused on protecting myself from emotional involvement, connection, and pain. This is the norm in my local culture, medical education, medical practice, and my generation that experienced the Lebanese civil war.
As I entered her room she looked at me smiling. She hugged me and whispered in my ear with tears in her eyes, “Thank you.”
In my turn, I thanked her and bid her farewell, wishing her much love and happiness. Her tears, cries, pain, and suffering will always remain engraved in my mind. I remember her addiction to pain medications and the insults she addressed to me when I gave her a placebo. And I remember the gradual change of my attitude toward her situation. She used to annoy me, but what I truly wanted was to run away from her pain. Her agony scared me.
But then I started to think about that glimmer of joy I could see in her eyes every time she saw me enter her room. A growing feeling of impatience to see her seized me. I wanted to sit beside her and listen without judgement. I listened to her scream in pain. She told me everything about her life and about her accident, the where, why, and how.
She also unleashed her imagination in my presence. She dreamed of hiking with me at the seashore and staying up late chatting. She knew that she couldn’t dance anymore. But that dream was an escape, a mental vacation, and a balm for her wounds.
She taught me how to be a physician of heart who listens and shows compassion. From my patient I learned:
1. To care for my patients as people.
Never identify the patient as an illness. The patient is never a number in a hospital room. He or she is a human being.
2. Always show compassion.
We need to show a big heart to the patient. The heart allows us to experience humility and gratitude.
3. Let your patients dream.
Let him or her forget all about illness for a while.
Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.